Photo courtesy of Navitat Canopy Adventures.
Navitat offers a unique way to navigate the forest habitat.
This region never lacks for views, from the scenic overlooks on the Blue Ridge Parkway to the observation decks on Mount Mitchell and Brasstown Bald. When you're ready for a change of perspective, try one of these airborne adventures in our round up of ways to look down on the mountains.
Zip-lining at Historic Banning Mills
I have to fight against every natural instinct to step off the platform.
Even though I had just spent about 30 minutes going over all the built-in safety measures, my brain and body are still balking at the idea of leaping into the abyss. But it’s what I came here to do.
So, with my heart hammering in my chest I launch myself into the air -- the forest floor and a scenic creek hundreds of feet below me. I soon reach speeds of nearly 60 mph as I travel the 1,000-foot long zipline. As I get closer to next platform — which rushes at me in a just a few exhilarating seconds — I use my gloved right hand to apply slow and steady pressure to the cable to which I’m attached.
This slows my descent, and as I cruise in I plant my feet on the small wooden stand and come to a wobbly stop. It’s not exactly a graceful landing but I manage not to embarrass myself too badly.
Moreover, I feel like I’m starting to get the hang of it and excitedly make my way to the next zipline — this one higher and faster than the last.
I’m in northern Georgia at Historic Banning Mills, a 1,200-acre adventure retreat and conservation center situated along Snake Creek Gorge, a tributary of the Chattahoochee River.
The area was first inhabited by the Creek and Cherokee nations. Later, starting in the mid-1800s, white settlers built a textile and paper mill village along Snake Creek.
The remnants of the mill are still there today.
For decades, the historic site sat largely forgotten until Mike and Donna Holder bought the overgrown property in 1997.
Over the next several years the couple, with the help of their kids, built an adventure center with an expansive eco tour zipline course.
Today, Historic Banning Mills is a nonprofit and recognized as a protected conservancy.
The retreat boasts the world’s tallest climbing wall (140 feet) and, at 41,000 linear feet, the world’s longest continuous zipline course. There’s also a new zipline and aerial obstacle course designed for children 4 to 9 years old.
And as I discovered, each zipline course has a series of sky bridges, which, for me at least, were far scarier and challenging than the actual ziplines.
Guests can choose between five levels of zipline tours, each one progressively more intense. The Level 1 tour, for example, is designed for families (ages 8 and up), with nine zip lines, two sky bridges, and a tower.
On the other end of the spectrum is the Extreme Zip Line Canopy Tour. Highlights include the 600-foot Sky Trek Bridge, which crosses 190 feet over Snake Creek Gorge.
Adrenaline junkies will also love the Predator, where you step off a 200-foot cliff and soar down a 900-foot zipline. Banning Mills is also home to Screaming Eagle, which the Guinness Book of World Records has certified as the world’s longest zipline canopy tour, including the world’s highest timber pole tower.
Back on solid ground, Historic Banning Mills has miles of mountain biking and hiking trails. Kayaking trips are available down the roaring Class IV Chattahoochee River.
Other adventures include horseback riding, golfing, a swimming pool, tennis and basketball courts, and weekly birds of prey educational shows.
In between adventures, indulge in a relaxing massage at the day spa, and refuel at the main lodge, which serves a big country breakfast and a variety of lunch and dinner items, including picnic-style baskets and romantic candlelight dinners on the terrace that overlooks Snake Creek Gorge.
For lodging, accommodations include cabins, cottages, and lodge rooms, as well as several two-person tree houses, which are accessible by rope bridge and feature a king bed, jetted tub, bathroom, mini fridge, and back deck with panoramic forest views.
Glide high with Carolina Wave Project
With a peak elevation of 6,684 feet — the highest point east of the Mississippi — Mount Mitchell is the ideal setting for the Carolina Wave Project.
During this annual event, which is typically held during late February and early March, dozens of pilots from around the country get together and fly motorless gliders upwards of 25,000 feet.
But it’s more than Mount Mitchell’s breathtaking elevation that makes it such a prime location for pilots to take to the air. Sarah Arnold, who’s been organizing these gatherings since 2011, explains that the mountain’s uniquely shaped peaks help create wind waves — powerful updrafts that propel gilders skyward.
Glider pilots have been coming to Mount Mitchell since the 1970s, including John Cross, who in 1978 reached 29,350 feet, breaking the state altitude record for motorless flight.
“Unless you have a weather phenomenon like the mountain wind waves, there’s no way to get that high in a glider in the eastern part of the United States,” says Arnold, who operates Chilhowee Soaring Association in Benton, Tennessee, which offers glider rides and instruction.
During the Carolina Wave Project, Arnold, using a gas-powered plane, tows the gliders from nearby Shiflet Field Airport to about 7,000 feet to help them launch.
“We start around daybreak and people fly until around 1 p.m.,” she says. “It’s an amazing way to spend the day.”
Try a trapeze with CirqueFit
After earning an economics degree from Stanford University, Coby Balch was just weeks away from starting a job with a consulting firm when a chance encounter with a trapeze instructor launched his career in a whole new direction.
Never thrilled with the idea of working for a buttoned-down corporation, Colby — a lifelong athlete — instead enrolled in a trapeze-teaching program at Club Med.
Colby was a natural, and for more than a decade he traveled the world and performed as a trapeze artist with different troupes, including Ringling Brother Circus.
He also operated a flying trapeze school in Las Vegas, which is how he met his girlfriend, Kristy Petrillo.
“She was an enthusiastic student,” he says. When he and Kristy were ready to settle down and start a family, they moved to Blue Ridge, Georiga, where Colby opened CirqueFit to teach what he calls a “special combination of athleticism and artistry.” “We have everything set up in our backyard overlooking Lake Blue Ridge,” he says. “It's a beautiful setting.”
Learn to hang glide at Lookout Mountain
At Lookout Mountain Hang Gliding, you can soar some 3,000 feet in the air above mountain peaks and ridges, pastoral slopes and lush forests.
Situated in Rising Fawn, Georgia, at a scenic 2,389-foot mountain range, the facility teaches more students — about 100 per year — and is more expansive than any other hang gliding school in the country, according to instructor C.J. Giordano.
“People come here from all over the world,” he says.
The facility is also unique in that it has more than 20 miles of ridge running southwest to northeast, towards Chattanooga, providing an unparalleled setting for hang gliding.
Giordano says most first-timers try the Introductory Experience, which begins with surfing the slopes of two small hills about 5 to 10 feet off the ground.
Next, students fly tandem with an instructor between 1,500 feet and 3,000 feet above beautiful Lookout Valley.
For those interested in more comprehensive training, multi-day programs and onsite rental cabins are available as well. During your stay, when you’re not soaring in the sky, you can check out the local pro shop, volleyball courts and swimming pool.
New aerial park offers 'high gravity' thrills
Driving along US 321 towards Blowing Rock, North Carolina, it’s impossible to miss the towering 50-foot structure.
High Gravity Adventures, a new aerial park next to Tweetsie Railroad, offers three progressively higher and more challenging levels, ranging from 15 to 50 feet.
Guests, who are connected to the course via a built-in steel cable and full-body harness, climb and navigate through a maze of more than 75 elements, including cargo nets, aerial bridges, tight-rope walks, wobbly logs and swinging platforms.
Opened in 2015, the adventure course is the first of its kind in the High Country.
There’s also a separate, smaller course for kids ages 4 to 10.
The center’s newest attraction is the three-person Giant Swing, which was unveiled in July, says Ruthie Nathan, a marketing and sales representative.
With this ride, thrill seekers are pulled up 45 feet to the top of the swing, at which point one brave soul pulls the self-release rip-cord.
There is moment of stomach-flipping weightlessness, and then gravity takes control as you soar and accelerate through the air before plunging backwards again.
Float away with ballooning in Tennessee
It was a bad case of heartburn that got Ray Fournier into the hot air balloon business. The year was 1995, and at the time he was an information technology executive in New Hampshire.
He went in for what was supposed to be a simple procedure to correct recurring bouts of heartburn, but during the surgery the doctor accidentally cut open Fournier’s stomach.
He nearly died.
“That was it. I decided life is too short, and if I want to do something, I’m going to do it,” he says.
What Fournier wanted to do was start his own hot air balloon business. He had taken his first hot air balloon ride in 1990 and became instantly hooked.
For years, he dreamed about starting his own balloon business, but concerns about money and other practicalities stopped him from taking the leap.
But following his near-death experience, Fournier decided to go for it. He earned all the necessary licenses and opened What’s Up Ballooning in 1997.
When he retired two years ago, he and his wife, Mary Ann, moved to east Tennessee, where they continue to operate the business.
The couple offers scenic hour-long balloon rides, usually at about 2,000 feet, in the Sevierville, Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg area, all of which provide great views of the Smokies.
“Watching the world go by suspended below a balloon is magical,” says Fournier.
Want to climb in an 'Ewok' village?
Spend the day playing in what looks like a life-size Ewok village at The Beanstalk Journey in Morganton.
Offering an adventurous and fun combination of interconnected ziplines and sky bridges, Beanstalk transports you through a labyrinth of 15 tree houses, some of them 50 feet in the air.
You can also challenge your climbing skills on the 35-foot, eight-sided Beanstalk Climbing Tower and try out the simulated bungee jump.
When you’re ready to come back down to earth, Beanstalk is located next to a host of other family-friendly attractions, including baseball and softball fields, playground, disc golf course, volleyball, walking and biking trails, and kayaking and canoeing along the Catawba River. Beanstalk guide Will Singley says his favorite feature at the aerial park is the 520-foot Mega Zip.
“It’s especially nice in the summer because you get a nice gust of wind that really cools you off,” he says.
Racing zip lines at Navitat
When Heather and Abby Burt were starting their Asheville-based zipline canopy business in 2010, they devised a new word for the company name: Navitat, which is meant to encapsulate the experience of navigating through the forest habitat in a unique and different way.
The name fits. Navitat offers two different experiences.
Moody Cove Adventure features 10 ziplines, two skybridges, two rappels, and unforgettable mountains views.
“You’ll have a thrilling time on this adventure, but we like to offer guests a comprehensive experience, so we also talk about the natural and cultural history of this area during the tour,” says Heather Burt.
In 2014, Navitat opened Blue Ridge Experience.
This mountaintop canopy tour has three side-by-side racing ziplines, including one—where guests can soar at up to 65 mph—that stretches for 3,600 feet and is situated long 350 feet off the ground.
“It’s an engineering marvel,” says Burt.
Freefall with Skydive Carolina
For those who crave aerial adventures, it doesn’t get any more intense than jumping out of an airplane at 13,000 feet and freefalling at speeds of up to 120 mph. Skydive Carolina in Chester, S.C., has been offering people the opportunity to experience this thrilling adventure since 1986.
The company has a variety of training options, including an introductory program where you go tandem skydiving with an instructor.
After about 30 minutes of classroom instruction, you board an airplane with your instructor. Once it reaches the desired altitude, you leap into the void. While in freefall, you will accelerate to over 120 mph for up to 60 seconds.
Then it’s time to pull the parachute rip-cord and enjoy a breathtaking five-minute flight back to earth.
L.J. Burgess worked at Skydive Carolina for about six months before she finally decided to give it a try. She’s since skydived more than 100 times.
“Everyone who skydives is an optimist, but there’s an element of fear that’s necessary to enjoying the experience,” she says. “Without fear, you wouldn’t feel the sense of exhilaration when the jump is successful. When you land, that moment puts everything into perspective. I’m still afraid, but I love it, and I want to continue to challenge myself.”
Climb to new heights -- in a tree
Bob Wray launched Blue Ridge Tree Climbing about 10 years ago at his home, which is situated on 40 unspoiled and picturesque acres in Meadows of Dan, Virginia.
Step out onto his expansive back porch and its nothing but lush green fields and towering forests.
Wray, a former Eagle Scout and rock climber, is one the most noted recreational tree climbers in the region.
The unique activity is a hybrid of rock climbing and arboriculture, as it uses similar equipment and techniques.
He also offers guided tree climbing sessions at nearby Primland, a 12,000-acre luxury resort.
He typically teaches classes at least 3 days a week, but even on his days off you can often find him perched atop a towering hardwood.
“It’s just different up there,” he says. “There’s not so much noise.”
Trampoline park offers fun, workout
Asheville Billing its self as the world’s first indoor trampoline park, Sky Zone offers a fun new way to workout, along with cool adult programs like dodgeball, Sky Slam (like basketball except players can bounce ten feet in the air), and Foam Zone, where you can fly and flip from a trampoline runway into a pit filled with 10,000 foam cubes.